MELBOURNE - The Australian Open women's final had the comfortable feel of a television re-run. A familiar story, not too much drama, but nevertheless satisfying. If you haven't seen it before, this is how it goes: The Williams sisters come, they warm up, they grunt, they play. And then, almost always, Serena the Brilliantly Unmerciful wins.
Her game can be some distance from its shining best like on Sunday, but Serena wins. Her racket can produce five double faults and insufficient rhythm but Serena wins. Her sister can kindly put an arm around her at the start but Serena still wins.
For the record, 6-4, 6-4.
Tennis has never seen anything like Serena and her winning. The seven-time Australian Open champion did not lose a set all fortnight and no exception was made for her sister. Her 14 sets earned her A$3,700,000 (S$4 million) which is roughly A$264,285 per set. Good money, yes; astonishing talent, no doubt.
Her average time for each win till the final was 1hr 16min and on Sunday it took her 1hr 22min. Six inexplicable minutes more. Maybe she took a little extra time while replacing the racket she smashed when annoyed by a net-cord shot she couldn't get to. Sister or not, she was only thinking of winning. Later, in the press room, with the trophy in front of her, she said plainly: "Every time I step on the court, I want to win."
Venus served first and on the first point Serena sent her hustling to her right and then skidding to her left. Good evening, sister. Then she sent a backhand whistling cross court for a winner. Break. 0-1 Venus. Then Venus broke back and the crowd roared. They were with Venus, but greatness is with Serena.
It was a night of sisters and thus no secrets. They were playing each other almost purely on instinct and memory. Once when Venus smashed from close to the net, Serena knew where it was going and calmly slapped it for a winner. More breaks occurred, three in total, but the end result of the first set was known. Serena wins.
No player starts tennis thinking they want to win a sizeable number of Grand Slam titles. Just one will do. Now Serena has 23 and it's one more than Steffi Graf and one less than Margaret Court. "It's a great number," said Venus. "I know she would like to have a little more. Who wouldn't?" But it's not one number that captures Serena but entire sheets of data which confirm that no one has won like her.
She was already the oldest woman to win a Slam in the Open era (which started in 1968) and already the oldest to be No. 1, which she will be again on Monday. She has the longest Grand Slam winning span (1999-2017) and has a staggering win-loss record in Grand Slam finals.
Graf is 22-9 but she is 23-6. Let's take it further. Federer is 17-10 in finals, Nadal is 14-6 and Djokovic is 12-9. Factor in that it's more competitive on the men's tour and it's still remarkable. So maybe when we next talk about the Greatest Of All Time, which includes Rod Laver of course, let's forget gender. Let's put Serena into the argument. Certainly she thinks she belongs up there. "I definitely think so. I mean, between Martina (Navratilova), myself, Steffi Graf, hands down we are leading that conversation."
Meanwhile the match isn't outstanding, but it has stinging moments. Shots that whistle and sizzle and hum across the net. They make 48 unforced errors but, as Venus says, there's no hesitation in their genes. "There's no counter-punching. There's no pushing. There's just aggression," she says. "You're going to see some great shots and at times you're going to see some errors."
Venus is all long-limbed grace, Serena is all compact conviction. In the rare points that their strokes sing together it is like a powerful opera. In the last four games there is a 16-shot rally, a 13-shot duet and then a 24-shot exchange. Equally beautiful is a game which takes roughly 40 seconds or so. Four Serena serves. Finish. Later she said as a kid she "wanted to serve like Pete Sampras". He would have approved, of how she serves and also how much she wins.
When the final ends, Venus folds Serena into a wonderful embrace. Congratulating the winner, or comforting her? Later the elder one says: "I don't know what our plan is. Whatever it is, we'll do it together." No more winning and losing. No more Venus and Serena. Now again just the Williams sisters.